Anwar Freed in Tense Kuala Lumpur

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was freed from custody this morning in an increasingly volatile Kuala Lumpur without being charged over allegations he had sodomized a 23-year-old male volunteer in his office.

Tension has been rising, with hundreds of people on the street last night in the city’s “golden triangle” Chinese area of the downtown, and at least seven truckloads of Field Reserve Unit troops on the streets near the police headquarters where Anwar had been taken by officials at 1 pm Wednesday.

Anwar promised a press conference at 2 pm today to denounce the move against him. The one-time deputy prime minister and finance minister was told he would have to report back to the police in a month’s time, on August 18. He refused to give a DNA sample to officers.

After police descended on Anwar’s home, his supporters clogged the streets around the police headquarters on Jalan Hang Tuah where he had been taken. Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or the People’s Justice Department, called for calm.

Anwar was arrested a decade ago on similar charges, which were regarded by human rights organizations across the world as trumped up to keep him from power. He ultimately spent six years in prison until being freed by the courts. The sodomy charge was overturned. He has staged a furious response to the current charges, filing defamation charges against Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who filed a police report in May, claiming that the 61-year-old politician committed sodomy, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison and caning. He has also asked Malaysia’s shariah, or Islamic court, to look into the matter.

His supporters allege that the latest sexual perversion charges were trumped up in an effort to thwart his attempt to lodge charges against the country’s police chief, Musa Hassan, and attorney-general, Gani Patail, for fabricating the 1998 case against him. Musa was the lead investigating officer and Gani the head prosecutor at the controversial trial.

Anwar has been poised to stand in a by-election within the next few weeks, preparatory, he hopes, to entering Parliament and swaying enough members from the ruling national coalition to take a shot at becoming Prime Minister.

The arrest is only the latest in a series of lurid charges hurled by both the opposition and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition since March elections that saw the Barisan lose its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time in the country’s 50-year history. The intensifying struggle has driven down the stock market and raised concerns that political paralysis will affect the slumping economy.

“These events are deeply disturbing to us and indicate that this entire episode is a repeat of the actions taken against Anwar Ibrahim in 1998,” Anwar’s office said in a statement released Tuesday after his arrest. “During the last few weeks the government-owned mainstream media has demonized and vilified him. His staff has been harassed and we see a conspiracy being hatched to thwart the political change that is imminent in Malaysia."

Sankara Nair, Anwar’s lawyer, told reporters that no warrant of arrest was presented and that he suspected the arrest was unrelated to the sodomy allegations as Anwar was on his way to the Kuala Lumpur police headquarters to give his statement on those charges as agreed.

“In fact, several minutes before the arrest, the investigation officer DSP Jude Pereira called us to ask if were coming. We replied that we would be there at 2pm sharp," Sankara said. “If Anwar had not showed up at 2pm, I would understand the need to arrest. The police have breached the trust and confidence we once had. Now, my client has expressed fear that he will be subjected to intimidation by the police”.

Anwar had refused to go to the city's police headquarters on Monday to respond to a police report lodged on June 28 by Saiful Bukhari Azlan, claiming that the 61-year-old politician committed sodomy, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison and caning.

The arrest came barely a day after a live telecast of an unprecedented debate between Anwar and Information Minister Shabery Cheek in which Anwar dodged personal attacks and argued for lower fuel prices. He added that Tenaga Nasional, the national electricity supplier, was restricted by contracts with independent power producers to hold “the highest (electricity) reserves in the world,” thus passing additional costs to consumers.

From as early as Saturday, in the face of a no-confidence vote against Badawi being tabled in parliament on Monday, the Barisan Nasional deployed about 1,600 police to man roadblocks apparently hoping to weed out opposition supporters said to be traveling to Kuala Lumpur for a major protest rally. A court order was issued on Sunday to “arrest on sight” Anwar and his supporters within a five-kilometer radius of Parliament.

Police also barred the press initially from entering parliament to cover the day's proceedings. Eventually officials let reporters with government passes in.

The roadblocks caused traffic jams and stoked concerns over a recent fuel price hike that saw pump prices almost doubling. “Today the police have set up road blocks to prevent a public rally,” Mahathir wrote on his blog, “I do not blame the police for doing this. It is their job. But thousands of cars would be burning costly fuel as they inch their way forward to pass the block. We need to check not just the passenger cars but also the buses and the trains. They are unusually crowded now. They provide loopholes for determined demonstrators.”

“The government is paranoid,” lawmaker Tian Chua of Parti Keadilan Rakyat told AFP on July 13. “We just called our supporters to witness the debate, but authorities think it will be a mass gathering. There is no need for the roadblocks.”

Since the general election, Anwar has repeatedly predicted that the opposition would lure enough lawmakers to bring down the government. At the same time, rank and file members of the dominant United Malays National Organisation, mostly driven by Mahathir, have called for Badawi's immediate resignation.

To ease the pressure, Badawi said on July 10 that he would step down in mid-2010 to make way for Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak to take over. However, Najib is marred by corruption charges and allegations that he was involved in the gruesome 2006 murder of a 28-year-old Mongolian woman with whom he is alleged to have had an affair. Najib denies all charges.